Viasat is trying to throw a wrench into rival SpaceX's plan to deploy thousands of satellites for the Starlink broadband service over concerns that the resulting constellation could be
hazardous to the Earth's atmosphere, potentially create more orbital debris from collisions and generate massive amounts of light pollution.
Viasat's petition to the FCC filed on December 22 stems from SpaceX's proposal to modify its deployment by lowering the orbital altitude of nearly 3,000 Starlink satellites.
As Space News points out, satellite systems have enjoyed a categorical exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the FCC and other agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their actions.
Viasat notes in its filing that light pollution from Starlink's constellations also can 'create an aesthetic distraction for any stargazer.'
(Image source: Daniel Lopez/El Cielo de Canarias in Interesting Engineering, July 24, 2020, as cited in Viasat's FCC filing)
Viasat holds that Starlink's plan to deploy thousands of satellites (the FCC has authorized SpaceX to deploy about 12,000 satellites) adds a wide range of new variables and potential hazards that should obviate that exemption. As a result, Viasat is urging the FCC to deny or defer SpaceX's proposed modification and, at the very least, to prepare an environmental assessment (EA) before acting on SpaceX's application.
The petition emerges as Starlink moves toward the commercial launch of a broadband satellite service that will rely on a constellation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites and will compete with satellite broadband services from companies such as Viasat and Hughes Network Systems that are currently powered by high-orbit, geosynchronous satellites. Tests conducted last fall by Ookla found that average speeds for a beta version of Starlink's service delivered 79 Mbit/s down and 13.8 Mbit/s up.
"The Commission cannot take SpaceX's word for it that the thousands of satellites it is seeking to pack into a lower orbit will not materially increase the risks of collisions and produce excessive space debris — especially because SpaceX knows that when its satellites do collide with other space objects and fragment or fail, it can always launch more," Viasat stated.
Responding on Twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested that Viacom's petition is motivated by the competition it will face from Spacelink. But he also seemed to forget that Charlie Ergen doesn't run Viasat (Ergen, Dish Network's chairman, is connected to Hughes, which is backing OneWeb's revised plan for a LEO-based service). Musk fixed that in a follow-up tweet targeted at Viasat chairman and co-founder Mark Dankberg.
For more about the Viasat petition and its concerns, please see this story at Light Reading: Viasat presses FCC to review environmental impact of Starlink's satellites.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading